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  • Hard SayingLanguage and Teaching in Augustine and Kierkegaard
  • Michael Kicey (bio)

When we teach, what are we actually doing with words?

Our everyday way of talking and thinking about teaching tends to call upon the resources of two distinct models. Although we rarely make our tacit understanding of these two models explicit in our ordinary comings and goings as teachers, they enjoy a vastly unequal status and dictate widely divergent sets of priorities—though both travel under the name of “teaching.” Much of the resulting friction—and, I would argue, the indirect cause of many of our misconceptions about and frustrations in the act of teaching—lies in the way these competing models depend upon mutually incommensurable ideas about the nature and function of language. The first of these models approaches language as an instrument of representation and finds its paradigm in the declarative statement; the second approaches language as a medium of action and finds its paradigm in the open-ended question.

In this essay, I want first of all to disentangle these two models from each other as well as come to terms with the concepts of language upon which either one depends. The end products of this disentanglement should strike the reader as neither novel nor revolutionary, but this is precisely the point: to make explicit, conscious, and amenable to critique what may otherwise remain implicit, “obvious,” and therefore beyond the reach of argument. I will then turn to an examination of a pair of texts from the Western tradition in which the discursive and practical strategies by which one or the other model is typically realized, for both teacher and student, are carried up to and even beyond their logical limits. Augustine’s De Magistro and Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments are “didactic” texts in the eminent sense: because they are about teaching, but also seek in fact to teach their readers, these texts simultaneously articulate certain ideas about the nature and end of teaching as well as pursue the realization of these ideas all the way through to their ultimate ramifications. By exploring the complex and often paradoxical interplay of language and concept in these works, the parallel readings I offer demonstrate that these widely divergent texts turn on the same fundamental problem about the power of language both to represent and to interrogate reality, both to point out and to call out the world. Furthermore, I hope to show that the protracted and still unresolved struggles in scholarly discourse to clarify and justify the central concepts of either writer’s thought on teaching—for Augustine, the concept of illumination, and for Kierkegaard, that of indirect communication—stand to gain a great deal from being brought into shared commerce around this fundamental dichotomy in the way we think about language.

By the end, I hope to have clarified how an intellectual and practical distinction within the art of teaching that may at first appear obvious may have only become so because we have successfully forgotten the questions to which this distinction was first addressed as an answer. These are fundamental questions that concern our habits of thinking about language and understanding, and by rights they should appear no more immediately transparent to us than they did to Augustine and Kierkegaard. Through their answers, at least, we stand a good chance of coming back into contact with the questions themselves. Furthermore, and perhaps paradoxically in light of the work of disentanglement [End Page 113] necessary to begin this discussion, I hope to show that the only pathway out of the aporia we arrive at after having followed Augustine’s and Kierkegaard’s critiques to their conclusions lies in recognizing that these models are necessarily complementary to and even entangled in each other—but that we must carefully rearticulate the nature of this entanglement.

In what ways, then, are our concept of teaching, and by necessity also our concept of the language we use in teaching, potentially divided against themselves? The first model of teaching I want to discuss here seems so familiar and so simple as hardly to warrant scrutiny—and much of the time teachers and non-teachers alike take it to be...